He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation. – Niccolò Machiavelli
What does that mean?
Back in the day when Machiavelli was writing, there were plenty of others who were trying to sell their services as political analysts. They were trying to advise the Princes on matters of state, often claiming to have vast knowledge, based on the classic books and other ideal or theoretical sources, including Plato and his book “The Republic.”
This quote is a warning against such people (unfortunately, they still are with us, and in great numbers). Machiavelli recognised that these people tended to have much theoretical knowledge, but little practical experience or knowledge. Also, the sources of what knowledge they did have was often compromised by the idealism on which they were based.
He is telling the Prince to be realistic, not idealistic. In short, he is saying that if you neglect what is going on around you, and instead pursue that which is idealistic, you will fail. As an example, it’s nice to think everyone tells the truth. But that’s not real, that’s idealistic. If you believe what should be seen as lies to be the truth, you will be ruined. Does that make sense to you?
Why is practicality important?
Be honest with yourself, and see the practical side of the world. There is middle ground between idealistic and cynical views. I call this middle path the practical view. I try to read into events neither the best nor the worst of intentions, neither the rosiest nor bleakest outlook, but just what really happened (“Just the facts, ma’am!“).
With that said, we need to acknowledge that we all have our experiences, our preferences, and our prejudices. Each of these color our view of the world. That’s a given, and it is something that we can learn to somewhat compensate for, if we have examined ourselves and know how these things impact our view of the world.
Life is something that has to be lived on the basis of what is true and factual. If you live your life based on idealistic (or for that matter, cynical) views of what is really happening, you’re just tilting at windmills, and that’s not usually the best way to go, is it? Be practical, evaluate life clearly and take appropriate action.
Where can I apply this in my life?
I guess you apply practicality to your life by not being impractical. Or is that too practical an answer? Laugh if you like, but it is both silly and serious at the same time. You need to start being a little more realistic in your outlook, if you aren’t so already.
Note that I don’t mean to abandon all hope, ignore your idealistic leanings, or become cold hearted. We still need to support our best thoughts and our best actions, and to recognise those of others as well. But we must not be blinded by our hope or idealism .
As an example, let’s consider painting a house. There is the ideal method, and the practical method. Ideally, you will scrape every last little flake off, sand everything else, wash it, rinse it, and then prime it. Then you paint it, being careful to mask everything off and finish with contrasting colors on the trim.
That’s great if you have a large family, friends who owe you favors, or have a lot of money to spend. However, the practical method is to scrape off all the obviously loose stuff, rinse and wipe the rest, and get busy with the paint. Which sounds like more fun?
The ideal paint job will probably last another 10-15 years (depending on the quality of the paint), while the practical method will probably last 8-10 years. However, the ideal method will probably cost at least twice as much, so what is the more practical use for your time and your money?
Where in your life are you looking at the world through rose colored glasses? Where do you let the ideal of what something is or how it works, interfere with seeing what is really going on? Think about your personal experiences, preferences, and prejudices. How are they impacting your view? What can you do to compensate for these, and work on being practical?
Do you consider the news to be full of perfect journalists, interested only in the story, or are there corporate influences that might impact the selection of stories? On the flip side, are you so cynical that you think every journalist is writing OpEd articles disguised as news stories, and the corporations rule the news?
While parts of both extremes exist (that is there are still true journalists out there, just as there are still corrupt propagandists out there), that has always existed. Sadly, this condition will likely continue until all of humanity takes that last step forward to leave hate, anger and resentment behind.
Be practical, and see what is going on. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Also see the beauty in the simple things that even the worst people do (even if it’s by accident). Take time to think, to analyze, to double check your preferences and preconceived notions against the actual events.
Being practical, not letting your experiences, preferences, and prejudices trick you into doing something ruinous. Preserve yourself by seeing what is really happening, and choosing the practical and pragmatic options. The kingdom you save may well be your own.